Unlike any other industry, entertainment is a realm of entrepreneurs. If you want to be a successful participant in the industry, you have to think and act like a business owner at all times. This applies to everyone – crew, creatives, and private equity investors – at any level.
Yes, a majority of Hollywood jobs pay on a standard W2 payroll, but they all lack the permanence you would find somewhere outside the entertainment industry. Nobody in film and TV production hires for years – in fact, working in the same job for years is interpreted as a sign of your laziness or incompetence. It’s your job to network and sell yourself.Unlike any other industry, entertainment is a realm of entrepreneurs. Click To Tweet
As an entrepreneur, your product is your time. You are the only one who controls this product. It’s your job to find ways to sell it for as much as possible and then deliver it to people who pay for it.
Your time is not infinitely scalable like the content you help create. You can’t sell your time limitlessly. You’re limited to the time you can work in a single day and how many jobs you can hold at one time (usually one).
A lot of people enter Hollywood with the intention of latching themselves onto a person or company like they might in another industry. It doesn’t take long for them to realize the error of this plan because it never takes them anywhere. In order to sell your time, you have to think like an entrepreneur.
The Entrepreneur’s Mindset
Here’s how to make yourself into a Hollywood entrepreneur:
Step 1: Develop Your Brand
Your brand is you. You have complete control over it. You can influence how people perceive it. Are you creative? A workhorse? Do you show up early or late? Are you generous or greedy? Every interaction you have will affect your brand, so make sure you’re always behaving in ways that strengthen it.
Most importantly, you get to decide what you are going to work on and who you are going to work with. You can chase after the projects you find most interesting. You can turn down projects that don’t support your advancement strategy. You can even keep tabs on interesting people and try to work on their projects.
Step 2: Determine Your Role
You have to pick something in this town. It’s better to decide early so you can devote more time to it. If you’re a production designer, don’t also try to be a costume designer. You can’t do both as well as you could do one thing. That first job is going to suck, but if you have a plan and work hard, you won’t be in that position very long.
That said, if you can’t find a job in the department where you want to work, take whatever you can to keep food on your table. Obviously you have to survive.
But if you take an unrelated job just for the payday, you don’t have to put it on your credits. Your credits are a representation of your brand. They don’t have to show everything in chronological order. Put the things you want to be known for at the top of your credits.
Step 3: Stay Focused
In a traditional corporate structure, there’s a ladder you can climb from entry-level, to management, to middle management, to the executive level, and maybe some day the C-suite. There’s no clear path like that in the entertainment industry. Since you’re nobody’s permanent employee, no one is going to hold your hand as you advance your career.
In order to advance, therefore, you have to focus on your own career. Network and connect with as many quality people as possible. Develop a plan that takes you from one job to the next. Create a sentence that tells people what you are, what you do, and what you want next, like this:
“I am a feature film director currently working as a set PA, looking for work as an assistant director.” (PA = production assistant)
That sentence is just as much for yourself as other people. It’s the type of strategic thinking an entrepreneur would do, taking methodical steps toward their goal.
Step 4: Get Pigeonholed
Getting pigeonholed is actually a good thing. It helps people understand what you do and how you add value to their lives and work. It’s going to happen at some point, so you’re better off doing it yourself.
And if you ever decide to break into a new vertical or find a new job, ease out of the pigeonhole strategically. Set the goal, set a path to achieve it, and have discussions with your representation or your peer group on how to change.
Most importantly, don’t jeopardize your cash flow. A switch like this could take some time, so continue to do the job you have now while you work on expanding your horizons. Don’t walk away from the business that you have built until you are sure the next phase of your career will support you.
Entrepreneurial Lifeblood: Cash Flow
Ask any business owner what keeps them up at night and they’ll all tell you the same thing: cash flow. It’s their top priority every month, even before profit.
You see, entrepreneurs are not risk takers. They are risk managers. They’re really good at identifying potential risks, managing those risks, and increasing their odds of benefiting from those risks. Disrupting cash flow is a huge risk with no benefit, so the money must be protected.
Thinking like an entrepreneur means tracking and managing your cash flow. In Hollywood, your income is irregular (I like to call it schizophrenic). This is simply due to the nature of our industry. You could go from making $5,000 one week to $2,000 the next, even though you’re doing the same exact job. There’s no continuity or consistency. Some paychecks even come day by day.
This means it’s important to think ahead and consider how much you need to survive. Understanding this number will help you determine how much you need to earn. Keep in mind that many people in Hollywood only work, on average, about 32 weeks a year. Those 32 weeks of earned income have to pay for all 52 weeks, as well as stash money for your retirement.
You also need to have a reserve fund for those inevitable periods where you don’t have work. Most people can get away with saving three to six month’s expenses in an emergency fund, but Hollywood people should have six to eight month’s expenses in cash at all times.
Hustler Doesn’t Mean Asshole
Let me dispel a myth that’s perpetuated by TV and movies about Hollywood-type people. Yes, we’re hardworking hustlers who think and act shrewdly. But we aren’t callous assholes. In fact, the vast majority of people I see succeed are kind, considerate, gracious, and generous.
The best people in Hollywood want everyone to work. They’ll lock down their own job and their next job (secure your oxygen mask before helping someone else, as they say), but beyond that, successful people in this business like to pull their friends up too. They pass opportunities to people they know, make lots of referrals, and give good references.
This kind of generosity will come back to you in the future. You’ll get phone calls from strangers that go, “Hey, Sarah at Acme Productions referred me to you. Next month I’ll need a…”
So don’t turn yourself into a callous scam artist. There’s no need to become the Hollywood Con man. Work hard, stay dedicated, build your network, and as always, think and act like an entrepreneur.